Humans don’t have a monopoly on boredom – other mammals, birds and even reptiles seem to experience some form of it. Despite such clear evidence that boredom has played a crucial role in the evolutionary survival of multiple species, though, it’s often reduced to the level of character flaw. After all, how many of our childhoods echoed with the parental cry of, “Only boring people get bored”?
Being ‘boring’ doesn’t necessarily increase your propensity to become bored, but other personality traits, such as impulsivity or anxiety, might. Impulsive types driven to seek out new experiences may become easily frustrated when their ability to do so is thwarted. Anxiety, meanwhile, may lead some of us to avoid unpredictable situations and withdraw from social interaction – the resulting lack of stimulation may induce boredom. But is this a good or bad thing?
Well, it seems, it’s a bit of both. Charles Dickens coined the term in 1852, when he declared that Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock was ‘bored to death’ by her marriage. More than just a literary metaphor? Perhaps. The easily bored have been found to be 2.5 times more likely to die of heart disease, and 30% more likely to die of any cause. They’re more prone to drink and gamble to excess, smoke and take drugs, and are at increased risk of suffering from depression, anxiety and eating disorders. They also tend to be more aggressive.
So far, so useless in terms of survival of the species, you might think. But you’d be wrong, say scientists, who believe that boredom acts as a signal of disengagement with our current situation, driving us to seek meaning by exploring new physical or mental territory. So what’s going wrong? Problems can occur when we believe that our means to take such action are blocked, prefiguring resignation and the onset of depression, or unhelpful attempts to alleviate boredom which result in self-harm. In a recent study, 43% of participants asked to “entertain themselves with their own thoughts” for 15 minutes opted to give themselves at least one mild electric shock. “They seem to want to shock themselves out of boredom, so to speak,” said Professor Timothy Wilson, who led the research.
Make boredom work for you…
Scientists believe that we may be becoming more bored as we become increasingly reliant on technology to alleviate boredom. But what happens when we turn our phones off? “If we don’t find stimulation externally, we look internally,” says researcher Sandi Mann, who discovered that research participants who carried out ‘mindless’ tasks, like copying numbers from a telephone directory, performed better on tests of creativity. Those who simply read the phone book performed even better! Mann thinks that boredom encourages mind wandering, boosting associative thinking and allowing us to make new connections. “It allows us to make leaps of imagination,” she enthuses.
Tim Lomas, of the University of East London, believes that boredom can increase awareness, allowing us to notice and find “value in stimuli previously judged as lacking”. The only difference between boredom and meditation, he says, is that “boredom is conventionally appraised as negative (and hence people tend to denigrate or devalue it), whereas meditation is usually regarded as a worthwhile and beneficial mental activity. Consequently, if people were to regard boredom as a meditative experience, it may no longer be appraised as negative; indeed, it may no longer even be boring.”
Boredom might even make you a better person. Research has indicated that a boring experience may leave you more likely to give blood or donate to charity, a finding researchers attribute to an attempt to reclaim a sense of meaning.
So, next time you feel bored, put down your phone and embrace the experience. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m bored,’ when I’m stuck in traffic, I’ll put music on and allow my mind to wander – knowing that it’s good for me,” says Sandi Mann. Pay attention – both to what’s going on around you and what’s happening inside your head – and it could pay dividends.
Still feeling frustrated? Chronic boredom could be a symptom of a “deeper existential crisis that extends far beyond immediate circumstances”, warns John Eastwood of York University in Canada. Your boredom might just be a signal to “re-evaluate your life, what you are trying to achieve with it, and what you actually mean when you say you are bored,” he counsels. “To feel you can have an effect on the world and that things in life make sense, these are inherently important things for human beings – just like sunlight, fresh air and food.”